Worst boss

One of the questions that novice writers ask established writers a lot–like, really a lot–is what to do if your editor asks for a change you don’t want to make. I think they may ask it so often because they’re not satisfied with the answer we give, which is basically, “Well, decide how important it is to you and do it or don’t do it, accordingly.” In some ways it feels like they’re asking for reassurance of a just universe–that writing the book the best way you know how will turn out to have been the right thing in a way that is recognizable to everybody, or that there is a magical incantation you can do to have control without responsibility. And neither of those things is true. Control and responsibility go hand in hand, and very smart people can completely disagree on how a story should go. These are things to roll with, and you can’t really tell what someone else will come up with and how much it will matter to you until you’re in the middle of it, so there’s no closed-form answer. Make the changes or don’t, remembering that it’s your name on the cover.

But honestly, there’s a reason this is a novice question, and it’s because it’s about controlling other people. Almost all the novice questions are about controlling other people. How do I make sure that people imagine what I’m imagining, exactly? You don’t. How do I make sure that my story/book/poem/whatever doesn’t get lost in the shuffle before it even gets read? You don’t. And so on.

The journeyman and pro questions are about controlling your own efforts. I think a bigger problem than, “What if an editor wants me to do something with a story that I don’t want to do?” is, “What if my past self wants me to do something with a story that I don’t want to do?” Because that past self–that selfsame self–sometimes gets published. And then you’re stuck. Never mind working to editorial specification! You have to work around the limitations that that idiot kid (=you two years ago) put on your characters and plot. And you will see brilliant, amazing authors thrashing around trying to figure out a way around this problem. Long series are the absolute worst for follow-on consequences that you brought on yourself, that you can’t blame anyone else for–and that you still need to try to weasel out of. And yet the entire process of writing narrative is one of choosing and accepting the consequences of your choice.* Ramification is the name of the game. Try to skip out on that, and you’ll skip out on the reader’s trust and attention along with it. And yet argh, that one thing, if only it wasn’t set down in print!

*This is why it can be so difficult to write narrative while depressed, or one of the reasons. Layered on top of all the stuff that’s first-order stuff, you are making a choice per word and then more choices about going back and changing stuff so that it fits the larger scale. Writers with clinical depression have all the respect in the world from me.

I know a bunch of professional writers who joke about our “mean bosses” or our “incompetent bosses” or variations on this theme. We’re never, ever talking about editors. Editors aren’t our bosses. We are our own bosses. We are the ones who decide that character A should really be an only child when we desperately need her to have grown up with a brother in book three; we are the ones who leave a major villain alive so that the reader expects that villain will get dealt with when we are SO BORED with that villain in book six. Nobody teaches writers all sorts of useful skills, but management as self-management is one of the huge ones.

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